“The dark matter of teaching.” That’s how Adrian Underhill and Alan Maley describe the spontaneous interaction, the improvisation, the here-and-now of lessons. It’s not about the planned, the prepared, the unquestioned road map. True to their word, they let us know that they had not planned this talk down to the minute. Practicing what they’re preaching, I suppose.
We watched a video clip of two jazz pianists playing, or rather improvising a duet. The concert wasn’t scripted and they weren’t following sheet music. Then came a video of two people in clown school, team drawing something then acting out a scenario. Neither knew what the other was doing. They had to find out as they went along. It absolutely captivated the audience, so much so that I stopped typing this post to avoid breaking the silence.
In both videos, the duos are simply there, in the moment. The clowns don’t know where exactly their improvised wordless story begins, but something gradually emerges and they run with what the other is doing, reacting and building on it—the excitement of the unknown.
With the musicians, they know some things—it’s a 12-bar blues, played as a duo, but that’s it. They react to each other’s music, flowing together. It’s risky. They could make mistakes but at the same time, mistakes are part of the process. Mistakes can be picked up on and worked with.
The clowns are practicing improvisation and spontaneity in clown school. The musicians are thrilling the audience because they’ve developed this skill through practice. See the metaphor for teacher training into spontaneity?
Rather than risk and fear, we should rejoice in the unknown. We should get excited about it. Alan and Adrian offered a few ideas about what spontaneity is:
- interplay with what is happening now
- risking the unknown rather than making it like last time
- drawing ourselves into a different world of existence because we co-author the existence
- free flow rather than a hard effort.
So how can we develop our teaching dark matter?
Adrian suggested breaking rules–reflecting on your teaching and the rules that you follow, the things you always or never do. These are your rules. Take one and break it. Try something that goes against your grain and go with it. In doing so, you’ll have to improvise in some way and confront the dark matter. This doesn’t necessarily mean the new thing will be better, but it will help you avoid routine and think about what could be better.
And this can be a very small thing—teach at the back rather than the front. Move your students around in a different set up. Teach with a board instead of powerpoint or vice versa. Think about something small you could change in your teaching this week. Try it out and enjoy the excitement of change. If you make mistakes, learn from them. Trust me, learners make for better teachers.
How can we regain the joy of the unplanned, especially in teaching?
Experiment! Try new things, think creatively how you might teach a unit of a coursebook for example. We are constantly making decisions in class—do I correct that mistake? How long do I let the activity run? Who do I call on? Think about what determines how you make the decision and make it differently.
In teacher training, we need to prepare trainees to manage the unprepared, not simply teach them how to write lesson scripts. Adrian and Alan gave 7 suggestions for developing “being prepared-ness” in teacher trainees:
- Theatre games
- Presentation skills
- Reflecting on methodologies that eschew pre-planning, such as Dogme and Community Language Learning
- Have them provoke unpredictability by doing the opposite of what they would normally do
- Include spontaneity and improvisation in post-lesson discussions of lesson observations
- Encourage them to see teaching as an act of inquiry rather than in the hope of being right
- Discuss ways to spend less time trying to control people and more time trying to connect them with each other and with what they’re doing
For us as teachers, we can also prepare ourselves for spontaneity:
- Bother less about trying to control. Encourage connectivity instead
- Work with what is happening, rather than with what you wish was happening
- Start conversations about whatever matters to whoever is there
- Give up trying to be interesting and reach out and connect
- Make plans but don’t expect them to happen
- Increase intuition—follow hunches, be vulnerable, risk fear, leave gaps, be messy, hang loose and welcome student spontaneity
- See your school as an adventure park for YOUR learning not just a place to work
To finish, they particularly recommended several books to help teachers experiment with creativity, spontaneity, and the joy of the dark matter:
-Casenave, Christine P. and Miguel Sosa. (2007). Respite for Teachers. University of Michigan Press.
-Fanselow, John. (1987). Breaking Rules. London/New York: Longman.
-Lutzker, Peter. (2007). The Art of Foreign Language Teaching. Tubingen und Basel: Francke Verlag.
-Maley, Alan. (2000). The Language Teacher’s Voice. Oxford: Heinemann/Macmillan.
-Pugliese, Chaz. (2010). Being Creative. London: Delta Publications.
-Thornbury, Scott, and Luke Meddings. (2009). Teaching Unplugged. London: Delta Publications.
They ended by pointing out that we are perhaps seeing a trend in ELT where this spontaneity and reactivity have a place in teacher training alongside lesson planning skills. Of course it may be a long time before spontaneity as approach becomes mainstream, but it is no longer a dark art, despite dealing with the dark matter of teaching.